Suite No. 4 in E-flat major

Commentary by Christopher Costanza

From the 1st two notes of this magnificent prelude we know that we’re in for grand, rich, deep, and large-scale music. These 2 notes, both E-flats, are 2 octaves apart, and they set the tone for this organ-like movement, initially characterized by a continuous eighth note flow of arpeggiated chords. Contributing to the heroic feel of the movement, and the suite as a whole, is Bach’s choice of key: E-flat Major. A few decades after Bach composed this work, E-flat Major became a favorite key for Ludwig van Beethoven, in his confident, heroic-sounding masterworks such as the “Eroica” Symphony, the “Emperor” piano concerto, and the Op. 127 string quartet.

The entire 1st half of this prelude consists of a glorious and compelling chord progression, presented as flowing eighth note arpeggios and highlighting a clear sense of bass line movement as a kind of unifying element. At just about the halfway point, all motion stops as the music reaches a crossroads, where seemingly suddenly we encounter a low C-sharp with a fermata. Then we hear a very unexpected but exciting sixteenth note rhapsodic flourish to link us to our next section of eighth note arpeggios. The remainder of the movement alternates between flowing eighth note writing, a definitive chordal cadence briefly taking us to g minor, sequential sixteenth note passages, and a return to our opening arpeggio material, followed by a short closing improvisatory-sounding sixteenth note passage taking us to a final 4-note E-flat Major chord. A truly dramatic and exciting movement, and it sets an inviting and friendly tone for the movements that follow.

After the grandness and large-scale character of the prelude, this Allemande presents a more gentle, flowing side of E-flat Major. After the opening perfect 4th rise (a B-flat eighth note upbeat leading to the E-flat downbeat in measure one), the musical flow is scale-wise, sweeping and directional. This feel remains throughout the movement, occasionally interspersed with measures of alternating sixteenth and eighth note rhythms. Metrically speaking, the movement is in cut-time 4/4 (referred to as alla breve), so that we generally feel 2 big pulses per bar. This does not imply a particularly fast tempo – there’s a tempo “sweet spot” where the rhythmic motion feels just right, musically – but it does clue us in to the fact that the implied harmonic structure is based on half-bar chord changes (with some obvious exceptions). All in all this inviting allemande is a perfect answer to the prelude and an ideal connector to the Courante which follows.

The E-flat Suite’s courante is filled with rhythmic and textural interest. In triple meter (3/4), it begins with a middle-to-low-register bouncy eighth note figure, landing on a quarter note (E-flat) in the 2nd measure. Then, fleeting sixteenth notes bring us to another bouncy eighth note bar, followed by a quarter and 4 eighths that flow into a measure of slurred and sweeping triplets. So within the first five measures of the movement we hear eighths, quarters, sixteenths, and triplets, all complementing each other and working together to create a perfectly balanced rhythmic flow. This assemblage of rhythmic features, in various combinations, continues throughout the movement, giving this courante its direction, energy, and positive vibe.

Of particular note is a passage of eighth notes, eleven measures long, beginning in the 5th measure of the second part of the movement. This is an intense sequential section, its harmony defined by a circle of 5ths: c minor to f minor, B-flat Major to E-flat Major, A-flat Major to a d minor seventh, and finally a four bar section centered on a diminished 7th chord with an implied G pedal underneath, resolving, as we might expect, in c minor, the relative minor of E-flat Major and the key center of the start of the passage. This is a very dramatic 11-bar section, indeed – consisting solely of eighth notes, harmonically interesting and inviting, and ending with a highly energized cadence. Following all this excitement is a passage alternating bars of 16ths and eighths, bringing us to a big E-flat Major arrival. Then 5 measures of this rhythm: 2 eighths - 4 sixteenths - 2 eighths, leading us to the sweeping close of the movement. This particularly innovative Courante is filled with positive energy and an uplifting spirit.

The fourth suite’s beautiful, rich, resonant sarabande begins with a bit of harmonic ambiguity: the first notes, a double-stop E-flat – B-flat, is an open 5th that hints at the key of E-flat Major but does not confirm it. Then, in quarter note motion, the upper voice moves from B-flat to C and then D-flat, creating the interval of a minor 7th and acting as a dominant 7th chord (minus the 3rd) for the key of A-flat Major, our 2nd measure key area (the clear resolution comes on beat 2). Then measure 3 begins with the B-flat – F open fifth, leading us (finally!) to our E-flat tonal center in measure 4, 3rd beat. Rhythmically, bars 2 and 4 feature the 2nd beat emphasis we often experience in sarabandes – beat 2 is a quarter note tied to a 16th note, giving it a clear feeling of strength.

Of interest in this movement is the prevalence of the dotted eighth-sixteenth rhythm, reminiscent of the French Overture. Also quite moving and emotionally significant is the richly harmonized writing throughout this sarabande – we hear 2 and 3 note chords quite frequently, and the harmonies are very striking as Bach flows through various key areas, especially the final eight measures of the movement. These closing bars are gorgeously expressive and personal, a meaningful emotional centerpiece of the suite.

Bourrées are such lively, positive, exciting movements, and these 2 are no exception. Performers and listeners alike will be tempted to get up and dance during this movement – feel free to do so – with its sweeping and uplifting sixteenth and eighth note energy. Specifically, we hear scale-wise groups of 4 sixteenth notes in the first bourrée, leading to alternating quarter and eight note pairings. Those eighth notes in particular are light and lively and give the movement so much of its dance energy.

Listen for the extended length of the second part of the first bourrée – the first “half” is 12 measures long, and the second is 36 measures long, a full 3 times the length of the first part! This imbalance is unusual (in general, we see pretty equally measured sections in each suite’s five dance movements), and gives us a rather lengthy but particularly uplifting movement; that extended length results in a great number of exhilarating rhythmic groupings, emphasizing the movement’s highly positive energy.

The 2nd bourrée (flowing directly from the 1st bourrée and leading back to a return of the 1st at its conclusion) sits in direct contrast to the 1st: its primary rhythmic direction is a quarter note structure in two voices, controlled and stately in feel. This small but witty bourrée is the perfect complement to the zippy drive of the first.

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This gigue consists almost entirely of eighth notes in 12/8 (compound quadruple) meter; as such, those eighth notes feel like triplets throughout the movement, giving the piece an incredibly uplifting character. Much of the movement is in the middle to low register of the cello, making articulation a big challenge (generally speaking, upper register cello writing projects and articulates more easily and clearly). So we have a movement of great energy and life, but one that’s challenging to perform because of the tonal range of the writing and the very nature of cello articulation. Nonetheless, it’s indisputably a thrilling and exciting movement; as with the bourrées, this is the kind of movement that invites audience and performer to jump from seats and hop all over the dance floor!! Perhaps it’s time to encourage such behavior…